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The Cult of Smart

Bitter, racially divisive battles over admissions to elite schools, taking place across the United States, reflect the limits of education policy

Zaid Jilani
February 08, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Not far from the nation’s capital sits the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a selective high school in Fairfax, Virginia. TJ is considered among the best high schools in the country.

For years, it has used a test to decide who gains admission.

But that test came under fire this year. Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the school’s principal, Ann Bonitatibus, sent a schoolwide email last June lamenting that “our school is a rich tapestry of heritages; however, we do not reflect the racial composition” of the district. In the email, which I obtained, she called for “evaluating the racial equity at our school.”

Fairfax County school officials, gripped by the same moral sentiment, moved to eliminate the test and replace it with a “holistic” admissions system that takes into account nonacademic factors.

“We know equity and excellence go hand in hand. They are not mutually exclusive,” Superintendent Scott Brabrand said about changing the admissions process. “We know that a diverse student body can enhance the overall educational experience for our students at TJ.”

However, if the goal is truly to match the district’s racial composition, that’s bad news for Asian Americans, who currently make up about 70% of the student body but constitute only around 20% of enrolled students in the district.

Unsurprisingly, this has upset many parents of Asian American students. Suparna Dutta, an Indian American immigrant to the United States whose son currently attends TJ, opposes the change.

“I grew up in a very humble family,” she told me. “I grew up with just enough food and, you know, shelter over my head, and the one thing that was drilled into our head was that you’ve got to study—studies will get you opportunities that nothing else can.”

She studied hard in India and eventually immigrated to the United States. The lessons she learned from her father about the value of education that she applied in her own life, she has now drilled into her children. Dutta worries that the planned changes at TJ will lower the school’s standards and harm her son’s education. She’s actively exploring sending him to private school instead.

The debate that’s playing out over at TJ is happening all over the country—from Lowell in San Francisco to the prestigious Stuyvesant public high school in New York City—and the battle lines are usually similarly drawn. On one side you have social progressives who argue that elite high schools must move away from test-based admissions standards to promote racial equity, while on the other side, you have a largely Asian American opposition, including many first- and second-generation working-class immigrants, who object that they are being penalized for their focus on studiousness.

There is, however, one critical assumption that the two sides share in common: Both assumed that there is something genuinely special about the specialized schools that will benefit their children. But what if the school itself has little to do with the child’s success?

A pair of studies from Chicago offers some insight into this question.

The first study, published in 2016, looked at selective high schools in Chicago and found that there were essentially no academic benefits to attending them, with the caveat that high-performing students who did not attend the selective schools attended strong neighborhood or charter schools instead.

“The selective schools they attend look strong on performance metrics because they only enroll students who are high achieving,” University of Chicago education researcher Ellen Allensworth, who helped perform the 2016 study, told me in an interview.

A more recent study from the same city looked specifically at disadvantaged students who were able to gain entry, finding that admissions to a selective high school did not improve grades or the likelihood of attending a selective college.

These are not novel results. Similar research from Boston and New York City has come to similar conclusions. The main reason why these elite high schools perform so well is selection bias—the schools select the most gifted students who often come from nurturing home environments and are more likely to succeed in a range of different learning environments. On the flip side, when the same specialized schools admit students who don’t share those same advantages, research shows that it does not typically lead to significant improvements in their academic performance.

Demolishing the cult of smart would mean tearing down not just our current form of capitalism but also much of modern American leftism.

Yet our inability to recognize that supportive families who prioritize education have more of an impact on student performance than entry into supposedly elite schools, has set the stage for racially divisive education battles from coast to coast. And selective high schools may not be the only place where we’re putting way too much faith in formal education to change our kids’ outcomes.

Drawing on his years working in the field of education, the left-wing writer and polemicist Freddie deBoer has written a formidable text in The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice. The new book argues that both the left and right misunderstand the promise and potential of our educational system. While the left thinks that socioeconomics and government policy determine educational outcomes and the right credits these outcomes to hard work and culture, deBoer posits instead that the main factor is genetics.

This conclusion is likely to provoke protests from those who see it as too close to arguing in favor of the scientific racism and eugenics theories of yesteryear. But deBoer, a self-described Marxist, has little interest in the arguments about differences in intelligence between groups—the sort of inquiry that has occupied the minds of public intellectuals like Charles Murray and Andrew Sullivan.

Instead, he’s interested in differences between individuals. Why is it we see so many differences in educational outcomes between people of the exact same social class and upbringing? To answer this question, the book supplies an arsenal of research showing that intelligence is largely heritable—meaning that we basically inherit it from our parents.

DeBoer’s conclusions are well in line with the scientific consensus on the topic, which emphasizes the hereditary factor without dismissing environmental contributions. The neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky summarizes the scientific consensus on these matters in his book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, noting that the “heritability of various aspects of cognitive development is very high (e.g., around 70% for IQ) in kids from high-socioeconomic status (SES) families but is only around 10% in low-SES kids. Thus, higher SES allows the full range of genetic influences on cognition to flourish, whereas the lower-SES settings restrict them.”

But that doesn’t mean that everyone would be equal if we held SES constant; instead, it means that genetics rather than SES would determine almost all of the difference in intelligence levels. Although the science in this area is far from settled, it increasingly points to one conclusion: An enormous part of an individual’s academic potential is completely out of society’s control.

By explaining this reality, deBoer is not using it to justify inequality. On the contrary, he thinks acknowledging that we can’t all be Stephen Hawking is a liberating conclusion that allows us to stop hoping that just one more wave of education reform will close class divides. In our interview, he likened his view of academics to sports.

“I would contrast all of this with athletics,” he said. “With athletics we have a social understanding … that there really is an underlying level of natural ability and that that matters, and that that fact is often determinative of who is successful and who is not.”

Because we haven’t adopted the same mindset for academics, deBoer convincingly argues, we’ve set up a society where the smartest among us prosper while people with less natural aptitude get left behind, regardless of how much individual hard work we put into our education.

The Cult of Smart advises us to stop putting our faith in education reforms that have for decades failed to close achievement gaps and instead start putting our faith in social democratic programs. DeBoer wants to see fewer charter schools (he advises banning them altogether) and more Medicare for All, Universal Basic Income, and federal-backed job guarantees. In his thinking, there is no reason to try to make people educationally equal when that’s biologically impossible, when the government has plenty of tools at its disposal to make them more economically equal.

That doesn’t mean that teachers in the field should just throw their hands in the air. “I’ve said to several teachers who I’ve talked to about this, the message is absolutely not that you should look at your student in your class and decide who’s talented and who’s not,” deBoer told me. “From the point of view of the individual student, we still have the responsibility to get them to achieve as much excellence as we can.” He just wants much more aggressive social policy to do what individuals can’t.

While that should be a compelling argument to his fellow leftists, he’s encountered resistance from some who simply can’t accept the argument that some people are naturally smarter than others. I suspect that is because the cult of smart has plenty of adherents on the left as well.

The economist Thomas Piketty demonstrates in his paper “Brahmin Left vs. Merchant Right” that there is a remarkable trend underway in the politics of the United States, United Kingdom, and France. Center-left parties that once based their membership on working-class constituents are increasingly reliant on college-educated voters as their new vanguard.

Demolishing the cult of smart would mean tearing down not just our current form of capitalism but also much of modern American leftism, which fills its ranks with the smartest of the smart. It’s hardly a surprise that this faction wants to push everyone into college and then summarily cancel their student debt—after all, they went to college, why shouldn’t everyone else?

But what about places that don’t? In Germany, for instance, many students are routed into vocational programs that give them hard skills they then use to go directly into the workforce without having to pursue higher education.

But simply importing the German system into the United States is challenging because of the structure of our economy. “We don’t have assurance of long-term employment,” Michael Lanford, an education scholar at the University of North Georgia who has studied the German system, told me in an interview. “The reason it works so well in Germany is because there are a large number of middle-sized companies … that are tied into schools and the young people know, ‘If I’m training for this specific skill whether it’s working for Volkswagen or whatever they’re going to have a commitment to me.’”

For deBoer, the cult of smart can only ultimately be defeated by restructuring the economy to deliver more wealth to the less cognitively fortunate. But to even consider the policies necessary to accomplish that, we first have to admit to ourselves that not everybody is going to be intellectually gifted and college is not the only path to a secure and fulfilling life. Once we acknowledge that dignity should not be conditioned on intelligence, it becomes clear that a society where only those born with intellectual gifts are rewarded is as unjust as one that lavishes wealth on athletes and punishes the physically weak.

Zaid Jilani is a freelance journalist who has previously worked for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, The Intercept, and the Center for American Progress. He also writes a newsletter at He is a graduate of the University of Georgia and received his master’s from Syracuse University. He is originally from the Atlanta area.